​There’s no weak link in ​the Royal Opera’s devastating new ​Peter Grimes

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Bryn Terfel and Allan Clayton in the Royal Opera's Peter Grimes - Yasuko Kageyama
Bryn Terfel and Allan Clayton in the Royal Opera's Peter Grimes - Yasuko Kageyama

When Benjamin Britten set his first great opera in “a small fishing town on the East Coast”, no one needed much help to connect the setting to Aldeburgh, which became Britten’s home and was the inspiration for so much of his music. But in what is now nearly eight decades since the stunning success of Peter Grimes in 1945, the geographical sense of place has been continuously expanded in new stagings, and the conflicts in the drama between the outsider and a repressive society have become more and more potent in changing times.

The one constant remains the ever-present backdrop of the sea, both dazzling and threatening, the source of Britten’s piercingly vivid orchestral imagination in the Sea Interludes. So it makes perfect sense for Deborah Warner, with designer Michael Levine, to move the setting to a bleak, undernourished, litter-strewn Essex beach, and to transform the social context from the snobbish concept of the Borough to a rough and struggling community, Union Flag-tattooed thugs and all, ready to punish anyone who does not fit into their way of life.

Warner has often made crowds and choruses a focus of her stagings, and here she fills the stage with activity from the strong-voiced Royal Opera Chorus that is often messy but shows how the individuals of the town can so suddenly cohere into a brutal mass. The focus of their contempt is the fisherman Peter Grimes, who has already been responsible for the death of one apprentice and loses another in a cliff-top fall.

This is one of the great tenor roles, but it was arguably never suited to the thin and wiry characterisation by Peter Pears, Britten’s partner who created the role. Here, Allan Clayton combines a burly, physical, aggressive characterisation with incredible beauty of sound and precision of delivery – this is a part he was born to sing. He is devastating at the climactic, “What harbour shelters peace”, but it is his unearthly earlier cry of “Come home, come home” that haunts the memory.

We first find Grimes lying on the beach, already haunted by the boy’s death – a marvellous floating image by choreographer Kim Brandstrup (with aerialist Jamie Higgins) shows his mental disintegration beginning. There is no courtroom as there should be to open the piece; John Tomlinson’s Mayor Swallow makes his investigation into the boy’s death on the open beach, with forceful diction and projection that is a feature of all the solo work here. Grimes is not without allies: Maria Bengtsson’s Ellen Orford is exceptionally touching, with radiant tone even when she sustains an injury from the carelessly violent Grimes, protecting his vulnerable new apprentice (the very young and agile Cruz Fitz) as best she can.

John Tomlinson stands over Allan Clayton in the Royal Opera's Peter Grimes - Yasuko Kageyama
John Tomlinson stands over Allan Clayton in the Royal Opera's Peter Grimes - Yasuko Kageyama

However, the absolute pivot of the drama – and this is the first time I have experienced this quite so powerfully – is the wily and experienced Balstrode, who sets himself as the mediator, the fixer, and ultimately the controller of Grimes’s fate. In his flat cap, always on the alert for trouble, Bryn Terfel’s stance towards his fellow raucous townspeople is that not of judgement but of trying to calm tempers and avoid disaster: this is a great portrayal, bitingly sung with total clarity. In the end he fails to quell the anger after the second death, and it is he who tells Grimes to take a boat out to sea and sink it.

The Royal Opera's Peter Grimes - Yasuko Kageyama
The Royal Opera's Peter Grimes - Yasuko Kageyama

There is no weak link in this superb cast of quirky characters, from James Gilchrist’s simpering Rector, to Jacques Imbrailo’s sensual Ned Keene, John Graham Hall’s righteous Bob Boles, Rosie Aldrige’s fussing Mrs Sedley, the provocative nieces Jennifer France and Alexandra Lowe, and Catherine Wyn-Rogers’s sober landlady Auntie. In her dowdy pub, as the storm grows and the villagers pile in, the sudden revulsion as Grimes enters is one of many striking stage pictures.

Another distinctive feature of this new production is Mark Elder’s conducting: he sharpens the edges and mines the depths of the score with the excellent Royal Opera Orchestra, finding an almost Mahlerian resonance in the sea interludes. It is at times arguably too deliberate, but alongside Warner’s radical staging it shows the ability of Britten’s score to absorb countless interpretations, as it reasserts its status as one of the greatest music-dramas of the past century.

In rep until March 31; 020 7304 4000; roh.org.uk

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